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Essays on the work & lives of the artistic populace

Chapter One: Omission (1942-1967)

John Cale is the recipient of many accolades for his influence in the development of rock and roll in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era, particularly his role in the development of punk rock in the late sixties and early seventies; he’s also the recipient of one of rock and roll’s most famous firings: let go from rock’s most influential post-Beatles group, the Velvet Underground by singer/songwriter Lou Reed. Reed met Cale in 1965 in New York City; Reed was working as a hack song writer, Tin Pan Alley-style, for the exploitation label, Pickwick Records.

    Cale: We were introduced by a Pickwick producer, Terry Phillips, who thought I was a pop musician because I had long hair. He asked me, Tony Conrad and a friend, the sculptor Walter DeMaria, to form a band with Lou called the Primitives. Phillips wanted to publicize a song Lou had written and recorded in a back room, and Pickwick had released as a single, "The Ostrich," by a fictitious band, the Primitives. The pop program American Bandstand wanted them to perform this song on TV, so Phillips was forced to put an appropriate-looking band together. We thought it would be fun, and as a lark spent a couple of weekends playing the TV show and even a few other East Coast gigs.

The song came complete with a dance, a la "The Twist". It bore the forgettable chorus: "Do the ostrich!" Reed, then heavily under the influence of Bob Dylan (as was everyone else his age, save Cale), had also written a number of other songs; due to their subject matter he didn’t think of showing them to Pickwick. It was these songs, with titles like "Heroin" and "Venus In Furs" however, that peaked Cale’s interest in Reed.

    Cale: The lyrics were literate, well-expressed, tough, novelistic impressions of life. I recognized a tremendous literary quality in his songs, which fascinated me — he had a careful ear and was cautious with his words. I had no real knowledge of rock music at the time, so I focused on the literary aspect.

Cale, whose music experience was limited to his training in classical music, found Reed’s intelligent, blues-based music a perfect match for his atonal avant-garde experiments.

    Cale: I would fit the things Lou played right into my world. He was from the other world of music and he fitted me perfectly, we were made for each other. It was so natural.

Reed, in turn, was attracted to Cale’s avant-garde training. He had a hip, European air about him. Cale was born 9 March 1942 in Garnant Wales, the only child to a coal miner (and amateur musician) named Arthur George and an ex-schoolteacher, Margaret Davis. He began playing classical music on piano at age 7, and quickly came to realize that "playing music gave me a stronger sense of who I was." Cale’s father did not speak Welsh; Cale did not speak English. Music, a language of its own, was a crucial method of communication between the two.

    Cale: The awkwardness I felt when writing songs, I used to think of as concomitant of my belief in the strength of instrumental music. It may also have had to do with an incomplete sense of language. Yet music is a language as much as English and Welsh, and transcended them both in the ease with which I could use it to communicate. It was a comfort I found nowhere else.

His next instrument was the organ which he began playing at the age of 12 in a local church. In grammar school, he wrote his first piece of music, Toccata in the style of Khatchaturian, a title indicative of his growing fondness for the avant-garde. It was around this time that he heard Schoenberg and Stockhausen on BBC’s New Music program. Soon after, Cale was on BBC, playing the piece, after a school teacher, impressed by his talent, notified representatives of BBC Wales, who happened to be visiting the school that day.

    Cale: They couldn’t find the score but they’d brought me the recording equipment. I sat down at the grand piano in the school hall. All the piece had was this one idea, which I remembered, and once the tape was going I thought, I have to find a second half. So I did. It was a great feeling. I thought, it can’t be that easy! There has to be more to improvising than that. Creatively, it liberated me; I started to take chances. From then on I knew what I wanted to do; I wanted to play music and improvise.

At age 13, Cale took up the viola, soon to be his signature instrument, as it was the only instrument left to play in the Welsh Youth Orchestra, with whom he would tour in 1957 to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Nijmegen. From 1960 to 1963, Cale studied musicology at Goldsmith’s College in London, performing the viola in the 1st movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. It was while at Goldsmith’s College that his studies took a decidedly avant-garde turn.

    Cale: Academic courses in music were to me a waste of time, in that they concentrated on imitation of dead composers rather than stirring up self-expression.

Cale’s vision as a "living composer and not a cataloguer of the dead" did little to ingratiate himself with the corpses running the Classical Music Department. While at Goldsmith’s he was awarded "most hateful student award" by the department heads, following his performance on piano of La Monte Young’s "X for Henry Flynt" using his elbows, and his own "Plant Piece" in which a plant was placed on an empty stage and was to have been screamed at until it died. (Accordingly, Cale was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Goldsmith’s in 1997.) It was also around this time that Cale first encountered modern music, rock and roll, avant-garde classical and jazz and the Fluxus movement of John Cage and La Monte Young, via other students and the radio:

    Cale: Imagine me aged fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, lying in my little bedroom with the covers piled up to keep me warm and bury the sound coming from around the world, from Radio Luxembourg and the Voice of America, where the pill-popping alcoholic genius Alan Freed, who made up the very term "rock and roll," turned on a million teens and changed the history of the world. As the music filled me up, I imagined myself, into it [ . . ] from the pop of Elvis and Bill Haley to the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan, from jazz to classical and, above all, avant-garde, I was hearing and learning about it all on the radio.

After gaining the musical (and otherwise) attention of Aaron Copland, Cale was awarded the Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study at Boston University Orchestra’s Tanglewood Summer School; by autumn he had moved to New York City, where he was recruited by avant-garde composer John Cage to perform Erik Satie’s 1 minute composition "Vexations," with a number of other performers, 840 times. The performance lasted over 18 hours and was reviewed in The New York Times along with a photograph of Cale at the piano. In 1964, Cale was approached by La Monte Young to perform viola in his group, the Theater of Eternal Music, along with avant-garde composer Terry Riley, drummer Angus MacLise, mathematician Dennis Johnson and Young’s wife Marion. The group later included Tony Conrad and would be known as The Dream Syndicate. The music was, as with most avant-garde music, alternatively liberating and dull. It was composed mainly of an amplified violin (Conrad) and viola (Cale) punctuated by Young’s harmonics-based saxophone riffs. Tapes recorded by the band were relayed in a pressing of 98 copies in 1964; the full tapes would not receive professional release until the years 2000 and 2002 , on three separate compact discs. While not the most user-friendly music, it did point the way toward Cale’s experimentations with the Velvet Underground shortly after: most notably the "drone" sound consisting of a single note to be played on the amplified viola and violin for upwards. This required a great deal of patience and energy (and drugs) to pull off, three things Cale had plenty of. As Martin Williams said of John Coltrane’s similar hour-long improvisations being performed a few years earlier and a few city blocks away, "one man’s incantation is another man’s monotony." Thankfully, LSD was beginning to surface among the bohemian crowds of New York; it was a similar taste in narcotics that further glued Cale and his next collaborator, Reed, and their Dream Syndicate-influenced experimentations. Whatever the Dream Syndicates influence in the long run, it was a short lived band:

    Cale: The crossover point was the Everly Brothers record "Dream" which we would listen to ad nauseum to hear the "difference tones" in the opening bars [ . . ] the excitement of the Stones arriving and the Beatles at Shea Stadium was palpable on the Lower East Side. It made a future in the avant-garde more dim.

Cale and Reed moved in together; playing and listening to music with their neighbor Angus MacLise. They also shared women. Cale and Reed’s similar taste in narcotics was helpful; Lou helped Cale shoot up heroin for the first time. But it was clear that this was a rocky relationship from the beginning:

    Cale: Lou and I had one of those rapports where you think the other guy is thinking what you’re thinking, but he’s not. He couldn’t figure me out and I couldn’t figure him out. The only thing we had in common were drugs and an obsession with risk-taking. That was the raison d’etre for the Velvet Underground.

Reed and Cale were purveyors of what was decadently an anti-hippie, fuck-all, hipper-than-thou attitude, later appropriated by the punks:

    Cale: We had a common stubbornness, ambition, paranoia and fear. As people our image was that we were weird, sadistic, aloof, unfriendly and nasty: that was how we always came across and how people expected us to be. We were so tight everybody was sure we were gay. We hated everybody and everything. Other musicians were viewed as competition. We did not consider ourselves to be entertainers and would not relate to our audience the way pop groups like the Monkees were supposed to; we never smiled and would turn our backs on the audience or give them the finger. Our aim was to upset people, make them feel uncomfortable, make them vomit.

The tension between Cale and Reed, was not entirely disadvantageous, as Cale has noted. If anything it provided the type of environment in which such tense and risk-taking music could be tested, nurtured:

    Cale: Lou is the most difficult person to work with I have ever known. But I really liked the fact that I didn’t know what was going to happen from one hour to the other. His viewpoint on things changed from minute to minute. There was no rationality to it. And no matter how aggravating it became, it was a very important element of what happened.

What happened is that Lou Reed brought in an old schoolmate from his Syracuse University days, Sterling Morrison and initially Angus MacLise as drummer, later replaced by Maureen Tucker, a mother of four, after Angus decided he couldn’t adjust to scheduled rehearsals and performance. (Angus, incidentally, gave the band its name, which had been first the Falling Spikes, then the Warlocks, after a soft-core porn about suburban swingers). Reed’s cool monotone contrasted nicely with the nervous energy of Cale’s piano and viola. The band was instantly notorious.

    Cale: For me the whole point of the band from the get-go was Lou’s improvisational things and my music. I thought the band could be a tapestry behind which he could set up his words, and we could do anything we wanted. And we would improvise every night and record albums live.

Unfortunately for Cale, he was about to get a lesson in Reed’s notorious megalomania. The dispute over who was responsible for what continues to this day, and was one of the reasons behind the failure to launch a successful reunion tour in 1993. According to Cale:

    Lou would write the attractive little songs and I always wanted to make everything a little slinkier, slow and sexy. [ . . . ] When we came up with "Venus In Furs" I was absolutely convinced that we had discovered our own sound because it was unique and very nasty. Very nasty.

Rock journalist Al Aronowitz was hired as manager; they played high schools and upper-class parties and sent crowds screaming; they appeared in a film on Walter Cronkite’s news hour and they recorded demos: Cale traveled to London hoping to interest Marianne Faithfull, who never returned his calls. He did return armed with the latest singles by the Who. While playing a club in New York, they were warned to discontinue playing their decidedly atonal "Black Angel’s Death Song"; when they did, they were ejected from the club, but not before receiving the attention of Andy Warhol, who invited them to his upcoming "happening" called "Up-tight," later the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable," and added Nico, an icy German chanteuse, one of Warhol’s stable actresses. Warhol was attracted to their songs about drugs and sadistic sex, themes he was exploring in his underground films at the time. The idea was to project two films on two screens behind the band and have two dancers, a male and a female, mime the song lyrics on either side of the stage. Already things between Cale and Reed were worsening:

    Cale: Lou was happy writing songs that Moe and Sterling could relate to. He was happy having them playing the songs in any way they wanted to play them. I was trying to push this thing in another direction, to try and have it represent everything that we were capable of doing.

The band went into the studio to record their first record, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966). Of these songs, Cale’s contribution is most felt on the piano of "I’m Waiting for the Man" and "All Tomorrow’s Parties," and the viola of "Venus In Furs," "European Son" and "Black Angel’s Death Song." On the other cuts he plays bass. Cale later handled lead vocals on a show in June ’67, after Reed backed down due to one of his many bouts with hepatitis, and Nico’s absence. Inarguably, his contribution to the follow-up White Light/White Heat (also recorded in 1966, released 1967) was more significant; consequently it’s the better album of the two. He contributed vocals to Reed’s Syracuse University mentor Delmore Schwartz-influenced "The Gift" and was particularly responsible for the adventurousness that resulted in the 17-minute sonic hell of "Sister Ray," on which he played the organ. Such noise and attitude would result in bands like the Stooges (whom Cale produced) which resulted in punk music as culture in a few cataclysmic years.

    Cale: We were intent on recording [White Light/White Heat] live in the studio because we were so good live at that point [ . . . ] we insisted on playing at the volume that we played on stage. [ . . . ] The performances were fueled by a great deal of chemicals. [The album] reflected the internal tensions as we ascended to each other’s throats.

Reed and Cale’s relationship worsened as Reed began to show signs of his growing need for control of the band: he changed the rights contract for The Velvet Underground and Nico against Warhol’s wishes; he later fired Warhol after Warhol showed disinterest in continuing to promote the album or the band (he was too busy shooting the film Chelsea Girls, anyway). Meanwhile they were touring the United States, playing shows in Detroit, of all places, with dancers, films and a lightshow, and no help from Andy. As Lou and John were sharing needles and women, a confrontation was bound to occur there sooner or later — it was women; Reed found Cale in bed with his girlfriend, and kicked him out of the house. Without asking anyone else, Reed hired a lawyer, Steve Sesnick ("a real snake," according to Cale); this did little to placate Cale’s growing concern about Reed’s need for control. Reed, wanting to reach a wider audience, found a sympathetic ear in Sesnick, who managed to convince Reed that Cale was the source of the band’s inability to achieve Stones-like success. "Lou was calling us ‘his band’ while Selsnick was trying to get him to go solo," Cale explained.

    Cale: There was a lot of childish intrigue, duplicity, talking behind people’s backs, a lot of insane plotting [ . . ] Sesnick fucked up my relationship with Lou [ . . .] and I was angry at Lou for letting him do it [ . . .] My fondness for long passages of grinding noise clashed with Lou’s attempt to take the band towards the more commercial. [ . . . ] in order to make the band sound different we needed the viola in there. When I had to play viola, Sterling had to play bass, which he hated.

Some say Cale was fired, others that he quit. The most reliable story must come from inside (and not, admittedly, from either Reed or Cale). Maureen Tucker recalls that Reed approached her and Sterling Morrison and informed them that if Cale didn’t leave the band he would. Tucker and Morrison, liking Cale but fearing financial repercussion as Reed, as lyricist and singer, was central to their project, reluctantly sided with Lou. Cale’s last performance with the Velvets came on the 27th and 28th of September at the Boston Tea Party, named for the historical event in American History when the colonists made it clear of its rebellion, its intention of separation, from England. And Lou, the American, wanted success, a wider audience, which he would find with rock and roll and not the European avant-garde trappings Cale brought with him. Success came with a price: it must be American, straightforward rock and roll; however innovative and influential the post-Cale Velvet’s music was (and it was, highly) they would never achieve again the height of innovation found in 1965-1967. Reed would retire to his father’s house on Long Island in 1971, disillusioned and exhausted by the rock and roll life. Cale, too, had reached, perhaps prematurely, his high watermark, but as he notes:

    Lou’s ability with words is often remarkable. I thought (and still do think) we could have done great things together. I am not belittling the past at all. I honestly think the best is unrealized. I also think I can find it by myself.

There is a time and place where history and one’s personal expressions come together. And it is fleeting. And the influence, however ignored at first, once seeded, began to blossom. The band’s music is now recognized as the most influential, post-Beatles. But this is, in all honesty, not science, and admittedly difficult to prove. But it does succeed in illustrating the originality of the music produced and the regard in which it is held by critic and audience alike. The Velvets happened because they had to happen, just as the Sex Pistols had to happen ten years later, and ten years after that, Nirvana. Cale and Reed continue to live in the shadow of the music: Reed would revisit White Light/White Heat with 1973’s Metal Machine Music (but, without Cale, it was just noise). Cale would appropriate "I’m Waiting for the Man" in his proto-punk shows in the late seventies. It’s hard to say what would have come had they remained together, for Reed to sweat out the long gestational period of two years before songs like "White Light/White Heat" and "Heroin" would entertain folks in Texas, for chrissakes. Someone should remind Lou of how long it took his self-proclaimed hero, Edgar Allan Poe, to receive the recognition he deserved. But rock music, unlike literature, moves fast, very fast — the Sex Pistols lasted what? a year? and released one record. Joy Division released two. Nirvana, three — and so on. As perhaps a sad reminder of how far the shadow stretches - despite both artist's singular and notable post-Velvets careers - Cale and Reed continue to live in the space left behind that notable discontinuity, submersion, omission of music resulting from the split in that Summer of Love, 1967.

As a sad and somewhat bizarre footnote: the Velvets reunited in 1993 to much fanfare and acclaim. In the post-Nevermind environment the corporate monsters, just four years before thought unlistenable by the generation that produced it, were more friendly to the Velvet's brand of abrasive music. They toured Europe and were set to for an American leg and a performance on MTV’s "Unplugged" when old wounds — Reed’s megalomania and arguments about who was most responsible for the music — resurfaced, resulting in the abortion of the tour and the MTV appearance. (It did result in one new song, the notably unnotable "Coyote"; one imagines arguments didn’t arise over who was most responsible for that song in particular). Tucker and Morrison, happy for the attention and the money, must have been rolling their eyes by then. Reed and Cale exchanged some disparaging faxes and it all fell apart. Perhaps it is just as well: the one document of the reunion, Live MCMXCIII, features Reed’s sacrosanct flat vocal performance. It is Cale’s renderings of "All Tomorrow’s Parties" and "I’m Waiting for the Man" that provide the artistic crescendos of the tour. Within, one can hear the drama, tension and catharsis that music holds, intends and deserves.


All quotes are from John Cale’s autobiography, What’s Welsh for Zen (NY: St. Martin’s Press (2000)

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